Oberlin Blogs

Why I'm Learning to Play the Saxophone

November 10, 2023

Naci Konar-Steenberg '26

In the thirteen months or so that I’ve been an Oberlin student, a lot about me has changed. I cut my hair, for instance: now it’s short and curly, not long and curly! I’ve uncovered the joys of adding hot sauce to food, something my frigid Minnesotan life failed to introduce me to. And I’ve taken all sorts of classes about things that I never knew existed, and rekindled old passions in things I thought I’d never be interested in again.

One of these passions is music. Music inevitably finds its way into the hearts and minds of every single person at Oberlin. It found me a willing pupil, which I would not have been just a few years ago. I started learning piano at the age of six, and I didn’t practice as much as I should have. I remember being a very difficult student to teach back then. It wasn’t that I didn’t like playing, but I balked at the rote memorization and meticulous precision that good piano form requires. And when I went into high school, I found that I just didn’t have the time to pay attention to something I had grown to dislike doing.

During the COVID pandemic, however, I got out an electronic keyboard my brother owned. Every few days, I found myself sitting down to figure out how to play songs I liked, or just to improvise. Eventually, I built back most of my old skills. And I got into composing: not just for piano, but for different ensembles of instruments. Music, for me, was no longer about rote memorization. It was about self-expression.

On my very first day I spent on the Oberlin campus, my parents and I attended a conservatory concert at Finney Chapel. It featured, alongside traditional classical ensembles, a student performance of “Emoriô” by Sérgio Mendes, who is a bossa nova musician heavily influenced by jazz. I found myself transfixed. I remember thinking: I want to be part of something like that.

I spent a lot of time composing in my first year at Oberlin. My skills were very shoddy when I started, and I’d say they’re still shoddy, but I am getting better. More than anything, however, composing has given me a reason to continue making music. It has led me to pick up playing the piano again: I’ve even learned some pieces written as actual sheet music. I’ve joined choirs, and recently, an a cappella group. And this past summer, I had an incredible idea. As crazy as it would have seemed to my fourteen-year-old self, who refused to learn how to play scales with good hand position, I decided to learn to play another instrument.

Now, I had many options when it came time to decide which instrument I wanted to learn. A stringed instrument: cello, or guitar, perhaps? A brass instrument? I know several brass players on campus, so I would have been in good company. Every option was on the table, from harmonica to theremin. As a pianist, I knew I wanted to play an instrument that was portable. I had visions of latching up an instrument case and going out to busk in Tappan Square… Ultimately, the decision was simple. I decided to learn to play the saxophone.

This decision confused some people around me. I had previously expressed the desire, in passing, to learn an instrument that would be useful in either a classical or jazz context. In addition to being a singer, I’m a marathon runner, so I knew I’d be at home learning an instrument controlled by my breath. There were plenty of options available that would satisfy both requirements. The words “trumpet” and “clarinet” were on the tip of my tongue! But the heart wants what it wants, and I knew I wanted a saxophone. Besides, in a Diary of a Wimpy Kid book, Greg Heffley states that it’s impossible to not look cool while carrying a saxophone. I couldn’t go wrong.

So, after doing hours of research, I rented a Yamaha alto saxophone from a music store in my hometown, Minneapolis. (The prices they offered for buying a saxophone were extortionate, but weirdly, renting one was very cheap.) I then brought my saxophone to Oberlin on the plane ride. This was a bad choice, but better than any alternative; at least the luggage carts in the Cleveland airport are only $7, because I desperately needed one. I wasn’t going to try to carry a 40-pound duffel bag in the same hand as a case containing an instrument I didn’t even own! While I was pushing my luggage to the Oberlin shuttle pickup location, a man commented on the number of bags I had packed and asked me if I was headed to Iraq. But I digress. The sax made it to Oberlin safe and sound.

I’m happy to report that I have enjoyed playing it. It took longer than I expected to make an identifiable tone while playing it, and even longer than that to do so reliably. I still find the embouchure difficult: it involves making a firm “oh” shape with my lips so that there’s a seal between the mouthpiece and my mouth, and as such I can only practice for about 45 minutes before the sides of my lips refuse to hold their place and quit.

But I can play some songs! Both songs I’ve learned from sheet music and songs I’ve simply figured out on my own. Oberlin offers 2-credit lessons available for all students on certain instruments; the only problem is that applying for lessons requires an audition, so I hastily prepared a performance of “D Major Scale.” But I’m learning how to play the “Promenade” theme from “Pictures at an Exhibition,” and I’d like to jump into learning some jazz tunes. 

Ultimately, I’m happy I’ve gotten back into playing music and making music during my time at Oberlin. I’m a prospective creative writing major, and I’ve noticed that the more I read, the better my writing is. I think the same thing happens when it comes to music: composing has helped me learn to appreciate making music, and making music has influenced my composing. Now, spending hours in a practice room figuring out exactly why I’m playing a high D a quarter tone flat seems worth it again.

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